Episco-Fact #64
October 15, 2017

What is a tithe? Where does this concept come from?

A tithe means 1/10th. It relates to the Biblical provisions in the Books of Leviticus (27:30-32) and Deuteronomy (14:22-24) where God commands his people to provide for him by providing for the Levites before providing for themselves. The Levites, a landless tribe of Israel among the twelve, were to provide for the religious needs of the other tribes. In this system, the Israelites believed they were giving back to God from all that God had given them.

The New Testament is less clear about what is owed to God. Generally-speaking what is owed to God seems to be more voluntary, but unlike the people of Israel, the early church had no dedicated priesthood with specific duties to support. Instead, the people worked together to provide for themselves and for leaders like Peter or Apollos who lived among them. There was also the example of the Jerusalem community in Acts 2, who sold all their possessions, held them in common, and distributed them according to the needs of each person in the community. That system seems not to have lasted very long.

The English Church, heavily influenced by the Roman Church (remember, this is the time of the late Roman Empire), as early as the 4th Century teaches a tithe of the produce of the lands was a Christian duty. This standard becomes embedded in the law, and by the 8th century it is enjoined by the legatine synod and by 10th Century it is enforced by an ordinance of King Athelstan.

Like our own tax code, there was a definition for included lands in the tithe, generally those under cultivation or used for herding. There were, however, exemptions, like the land set aside to support a clergy person, even if it was used productively. The tithe was supposed to support the operations and evangelism of the church in the local area. In fact, when Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope in the early 7th Century, he was granted the Church income of Kent to be divided in four equal parts: 1) himself, 2) the poor, 3) the assisting clergy, and 4) the fabric of the church. That system was retained to the 10th century, with the Bishop being left out of the distribution, after having been provided for by other means, in the 11th Century.

Land endowments were associated with the local church and its "incumbent (rector)." It was the Rector who decided about the distribution of the proceeds from the income in England. This system was eliminated in the 20th Century. Vicar's (think Jane Austin), the clergy on site, were paid from portions of the proceeds from the Glebe (church land) and the "small tithes" [proceeds from crops other than corn (i.e. wheat), hay, and wood]. The United States never adopted this system.

Therefore, tithes in the United States are voluntary. They are, however, based on Biblical principles and historical precedent. Tithes are also a lot less than selling all we have and letting the Church leaders distribute the proceeds. Finally, a tithe is a good measure of our faithfulness. It will tell us how serious we are about supporting our faith community and seems to be still be both an obtainable and admirable goal.


The Rev. David Lucey